For decades, diet soda was Mark Nash’s diet drug of choice.
The 52-year-old Brandon native, who ran unsuccessfully for a Hillsborough County Commission seat in 2012 and may run again this year, began consuming drinks like Tab and Fresca back in the 1970s, and then “evolved” into drinking Diet Coke as an adult.
But this past May, he gave it up cold turkey. He said his mother helped encourage him to drop the habit, citing news stories claiming artificial sweeteners can add weight even though they don’t contain calories.
“There are now lots of reason to migrate from it,” he says, referring to gum and oral issues that have also been raised.
South Tampa resident Toni Thompson, a retired occupational therapist, is another longtime diet soda drinker who kicked the habit in 2013. Thompson, 60, remembers binge-drinking Tab in her college days. She’d stop consuming the carbonated beverages for a while, but always went back. Then, later in life, she began developing urinary tract problems, and learned from attending a seminar in St. Petersburg that diet soda was a major culprit. Seven months into quitting, she says she has no regrets, and drinks water now to satiate her thirst.
Nash and Thompson are part of a growing trend across the country of just saying no to diet sodas. Store sales have dropped nearly 7 percent over the past year according to Wells Fargo/Nielsen. London-based consumer researcher Mintel says that even with price increases, there has been a 2.8 percent decline in dollar sales from 2010-12.
The biggest factor appears to be growing concern over artificial sweeteners, specifically aspartame, which more and more people are claiming is unhealthy.
But is it?
Dana Small, an associate professor of psychiatry at Yale Medical School, has been studying artificial sweeteners. She says that while such sweeteners will cause people to consume fewer calories, the long-term effects aren’t known. “It’s not clear that artificial sweeteners help reduce weight.” There’s no indication that they cause weight gain, either, but she does say there’s clear evidence that they have physiological effects that are “potentially deleterious” to one’s metabolism.
Of the many diet soda studies that have been done, the most oft-cited is one published by Purdue University professors Susan Swithers and Terry Davidson this past spring. In it, Swithers said that findings from a variety of studies show that routine consumption of diet sodas, even one per day, “can be connected to higher likelihood of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, metabolic syndrome and high blood pressure, in addition to contributing to weight gain.”
The weight gain reference is significant in itself, since the whole idea of drinking something without any calories is that it won’t be fattening.
The American Beverage Association blasted Swithers’ report, calling it an opinion piece, not a scientific study. “Low-calorie sweeteners are some of the most studied and reviewed ingredients in the food supply today,” the organization said in a statement. “They are a safe and an effective tool in weight loss and weight management, according to decades of scientific research and regulatory agencies around the globe.”
Yale’s Dana Small says that the problem with studies showing no ill effects from consuming diet soda is that they aren’t addressing all of the relevant questions. She’s not ready to say definitely that diet soda is bad for you, but feels there’s enough information out there now to be concerned.
But just when it seems like the evidence is overwhelming against artificial sweeteners, you get a study like one just recently conducted by the the University of Adelaide School of Medicine in Australia.
“In our most recent study involving healthy men, we found that the gut’s response to artificially sweetened drinks was neutral — it was no different to drinking a glass of water,” says Professor Chris Rayner, author of the study and a consultant gastroenterologist at the Royal Adelaide Hospital.
“The fact is, the human studies have been unclear as to whether artificial sweeteners have a positive or negative effect, and this is why we’re keen to better understand what’s happening in our bodies,” he added.
Toni Thompson says she’s still aware of how tempting diet soda can be.
“You know what? There’s a denial. You want to do it,” she says of her relationship with diet soda. “When I see a Diet Coke can, I can feel my addiction.”
But now she’s not only off diet soda, she’s also stopped drinking coffee or alcohol. Her one vice: dark chocolate.
Let’s hope for her sake that no one’s about to issue an anti-chocolate report.